December 29, 2010

Locker hopes for happy Holiday in finale

After heading into his senior season as the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, Washington quarterback Jake Locker now isn't even a sure bet to get taken in the first round.

Locker's stock began to tumble in September, when he went 4-of-20 for 71 yards in a 56-21 home loss to Nebraska. As fate would have it, Locker will close his college career Thursday by facing that same Nebraska defense in the Holiday Bowl at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.

He savors the chance to make amends.

"Talk to anybody that's had this opportunity in front of them that's played at this level. If they told you they didn't [look forward to it], they'd be lying to you," Locker said. "It's a great opportunity to go out and prove that you weren't at your best that first time. I think that's what not only me but a lot of guys on our football team will be looking to do."

This game isn't a referendum on Locker's pro prospects. Nebraska (10-3) undoubtedly is more talented than Washington (6-6) and enters this game as a two-touchdown favorite. And Locker isn't the only quality quarterback who has struggled against a fierce Nebraska pass defense that features All-America cornerback Prince Amukamara, a Thorpe Award finalist and a likely first-round pick.

Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for nfldraftscout.com, believes NFL scouts will understand if Locker struggles in the Holiday Bowl because Washington's offense doesn't have nearly as much firepower as Nebraska's defense.

"They have two legitimate shutdown corners and a very strong and stout defensive line," Rang said. "Washington just doesn't match up very well with that. If Locker does well, he can really boost his stock. If he does poorly, it just kind of reaffirms that Washington isn't a very good football team outside of Jake Locker."

While the storyline of Locker getting a second chance against Nebraska's star-studded pass defense has dominated the pregame coverage, both teams are downplaying that aspect of the rematch.

"It goes well beyond Jake Locker," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini told reporters. "They're a good football team. They've got some good players. It will be a challenge for us."

The attention is nothing new to Locker. Ever since he decided to return for his senior season, Locker has faced scrutiny about whether each of his performances this fall would raise or lower his draft stock. Locker insists he hasn't let that bother him.

"It hasn't been a distraction at all," he said. "My focus is being a part of this football team right now and doing my best to help this football team win. All that other stuff will take care of itself. I've always believed that."

Locker has needed that level-headed approach to endure a senior season that has featured plenty of ups and downs. After showing remarkable improvement as a passer last season in his first year working under Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, Locker headed into his senior year as a serious Heisman candidate. Those hopes disintegrated after the Nebraska game, and he spent the second half of the season struggling with a rib injury that limited his effectiveness.

Locker's struggles have caused some NFL draft scouts to change their perspectives on his pro potential.

"He made such improvements his first year under Steve Sarkisian that everybody expected him to make significant gains in Year Two, and he simply hasn't," Rang said. "There are still considerable concerns with his accuracy. He's very inconsistent, accuracy-wise. He continues to be fooled by pass defenses and exotic coverage schemes, so he'll throw the ball into coverage.

Stock falling?
Washington quarterback Jake Locker went into this season as the nation's hottest NFL prospect, but a so-so senior season has turned him into a borderline first-round pick. Here's a look at his 2009 and 2010 statistics.
Category20092010
Pass attempts395316
Completions230179
Completion pct..582.566
TD passes2117
Interceptions119
Pass efficiency rating129.75127.42
Rushing attempts112101
Rushing yards388302
Yards per carry3.53.0
TD runs75
"You'd expect him to make more accurate passes considering he's a four-year starter. That's the biggest thing. He hasn't made the improvement in four years that you'd have expected at this point."

Locker has thrown for 2,209 yards and 17 touchdowns with nine interceptions this season after passing for 2,800 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season. He has run for 302 yards and five touchdowns, down from 388 yards and seven scores last season.

But he closed the regular season on a high note by rallying Washington to a three-game winning streak that put the Huskies in the postseason for the first time since a 34-24 loss to Purdue in the 2002 Sun Bowl.

"When you look at our schedule and how we made it here, it's a season that's very memorable for me -- a very enjoyable ride," Locker said. "It's a lot of fun to be a part of and one I'll remember forever. There were a couple of games we probably should have won earlier in the year, but when our backs were against the wall, we really fought and truly believed in each other and this coaching staff, and we kind of came together.

"It's really fun to be a part of it. I don't think I would have wanted it to go any other way."

While Locker clearly has doesn't regret his decision to return for his senior season, his choice likely cost him some money. Locker remains the nation's No. 1 senior quarterback prospect, but Rang would rate him behind Stanford's Andrew Luck, Auburn's Cam Newton and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett if those three underclassmen enter the draft.

"I've talked to teams that have the last three in a completely opposite order," Rang said. "It's kind of jumbled. There's no question Luck's No. 1. There is a question of what order the next three guys are in."

Locker still has time to move up in the pecking order. Rang believes Senior Bowl week will mean more than the Holiday Bowl in determining Locker's draft status. The Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine will give Locker an opportunity to showcase the extraordinary athleticism that led the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to draft him in the 10th round of this summer's baseball draft. Locker, a natural leader, also should shine in the interview sessions with various NFL officials.

"If the draft were held today, I don't know if he'd make it [into the first round], maybe at the very end," Rang said. "But my belief is that he will work his way back in."

Locker isn't worrying about whether a better performance against Nebraska will serve as an effective jump-start to the next chapter of his football life. Right now, he's more concerned about giving his college career a proper finish.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Nebraska rush offense vs. Washington rush defense: The Huskers average 259.6 rushing yards per game to rank seventh in the nation. Three players could end the season with more than 1,000 rushing yards; RB Roy Helu Jr. already has 1,211, and QB Taylor Martinez needs 58 yards and RB Rex Burkhead needs 88 to get there. Martinez has had time to heal from injuries that slowed him late in the season. Washington's Mason Foster is a warhorse and heads a solid group of linebackers, but the Huskies are soft against the run, ranking 103rd in the nation in that category. Five opponents rushed for more than 200 yards against the Huskies, including Nebraska, which rolled up 383. Edge: Nebraska.

HOLIDAY BOWL

Nebraska (10-3) vs. Washington (6-6)
WHEN: Dec. 30, 10 p.m.
WHERE: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego.
TV: ESPN. (Chris Fowler will do play-by-play, with Todd Blackledge as the analyst).
THE LINE: Nebraska by 14.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Nebraska 4-2, Washington 1-5.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Nebraska T-33rd, Washington 42nd.
BCS RANKINGS: Nebraska 18th, Washington is not ranked.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Mountain West.
COACHES: Nebraska - Bo Pelini (3-0 in bowls); Washington - Steve Sarkisian (first bowl).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: It's a rematch, so it will be interesting to see if Washington, which lost decidedly to the Huskers in September, can fare better the second time around. Huskies QB Jake Locker should be healthy -- or at least healthier. He closed the regular season with strong games against California and Washington State, which hints that he could pose a challenge for Nebraska's defense.
KEY STATS: Despite Locker's late-season showing, Washington averages just 200.3 passing yards to rank only 77th in the nation in pass offense. Nebraska allows an average of 159.9 passing yards to rank seventh in the country in pass defense. But the Huskers were torched for 342 passing yards by Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game.
Nebraska pass offense vs. Washington pass defense: The Huskers have thrown for fewer than 165 yards in six consecutive games, and their leading receiver, Niles Paul, may not play because of a foot injury. Junior WR Brandon Kinnie is the only other Husker with more than 20 catches. Statistically, Washington's pass defense is solid -- the Huskies allow 202.4 passing yards to rank 34th in the nation. But at least part of that is because opponents prefer to run. The Huskies still allowed more than 200 passing yards to seven teams. SS Nate Williams earned All-Pac 10 recognition. Edge: Washington.

Washington rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense: The Huskies' running game is built around RB Chris Polk, who rushed for 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns. Jake Locker wasn't the rushing threat he'd been in past seasons, but injuries contributed to that; he did rush for 110 yards in an upset of USC. Overall, the Huskies averaged 164.2 yards per game. LB Lavonte David, a junior college transfer, accumulated tackles at an impressive rate, but the Huskers still had issues against the run. Six teams ran for more than 150 yards against Nebraska, including Western Kentucky. Oklahoma State's Kendall Hunter rushed for 201. But in the past two games, the Huskers held Colorado to 99 rushing yards and Oklahoma to 112. Edge: Nebraska.

Washington pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense: Locker passed for more than 200 yards in seven games, including the past two. He had 17 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. The Huskies have a good group of receivers, led by junior Jermaine Kearse, a big-play threat who averaged 16.1 yards per catch and had 12 touchdowns. Pass protection was inconsistent. Despite the problems in the Big 12 championship game, Nebraska's pass defense remains among the best in the nation. Prince Amukamara may be the premier shut-down corner in the country, and nickel back Eric Hagg also received all-conference recognition. The Huskers also posted 31 sacks; T Jared Crick led the way with 9.5. Edge: Nebraska.

Nebraska special teams vs. Washington special teams: Paul's possible absence would leave Nebraska without its best return man. That would be an obvious minus. But K Alex Henery is a definite plus. Although he was not chosen first team all-conference, he may be the best kicker in the nation. He converted 18-of-19 field-goal attempts, with a long of 53 yards. His miss was a 51-yarder that was blocked. He also averages 43.9 yards as a punter. Adi Kunalic is the Huskers' kickoff specialist, and 39 of his 83 attempts were touchbacks. Nebraska's coverage units are mediocre. Washington K Erik Folk hit 12-of-17 field-goal attempts; he was perfect on eight tries inside 40 yards and also converted from 54 yards. P Kiel Rasp averages 44.0 yards. The Huskies are so-so in coverage and on returns. Edge: Nebraska

Nebraska coaches vs. Washington coaches: In three seasons as Nebraska's coach, Bo Pelini has restored the Huskers to national prominence. They've posted 29 victories in his tenure and have back-to-back 10-win seasons. They've also won three bowls under him. That includes the 2003 Alamo Bowl, when he served as interim coach. Meanwhile, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian has restored some verve to the once-proud Huskies, who had endured a winless season the year before his arrival. Sarkisian has posted 11 wins in two seasons and has led Washington to its first bowl appearance since 2002. Edge: Nebraska.

X-factor: Although most of the on-field indicators point to a Nebraska victory, there is a real question of motivation. Nebraska entered the season with national championship aspirations; at the least, it was thought the Huskers would be in a BCS game. But they blew a 17-point lead in the Big 12 championship game and settled for the Holiday Bowl for the second straight season. How focused and intense will they be, especially against an opponent they've already beaten by five touchdowns? On the other hand, Washington is thrilled to end an eight-year bowl drought and surely relishes the chance for redemption for that earlier blowout loss to the Huskers.

Nebraska will win if: The Huskers ran at will against Washington in the first game and need to get the ground game going again. They also must contain Washington's running game and force Locker into obvious passing situations against one of the country's best secondaries.

Washington will win if: The Huskies absolutely have to do a better job against the run. They allowed Nebraska 383 rushing yards and six touchdowns, including runs of 80 and 65 yards, in the first meeting. The Huskies need to mount a consistent running game to control the clock and give the defense as much rest as possible. Finally, they need to stay close and hope for a chance to win it late. Two of their victories have come on last-play scores (a field goal vs. USC and a touchdown vs. California), and another was in overtime.

- OLIN BUCHANAN

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Nebraska 41, Washington 21
Tom Dienhart: Nebraska 40, Washington 20
David Fox: Nebraska 38, Washington 17
Mike Huguenin: Nebraska 38, Washington 17
Steve Megargee: Nebraska 31, Washington 17

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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